The Gonder of the Italians

I don’t know to what higher power I owe my life. The minibus I was travelling on avoided an accident that might have been nasty. After a curve we were faced by the ominous silhouette of a lorry approaching on our same lane because the other was occupied by a stationary car. The head-on collision was eschewed by a hair thanks to a sudden swerve on the verge, which in that stretch was wide and smooth enough to receive a vehicle. As if nothing had happened, the driver, always keeping the same speed, swerved back on the asphalt lane and resumed the journey.

I was dropped off in the centre of Gonder, in what is still known as Piazza, and started my search for a hotel. I had to see a few before I settled on one that, contrary to all hopes, was a treasure trove. I first wandered up to the hilltop to find an old residential district that I promised myself I’d come back to explore. Here two Fascist villas house hotels, both of which were out of my budget. Upon suggestion of a helpful boy, I then tried a local one, itself housed in what must have been yet another Italian era venue, but it was really seedy and not too reassuring.


Finally, I found the villa. The building stood behind a curtain of tall trees and may have been the posh hotel in colonial times.  I was kept waiting for a considerable time in the deserted hall because, I was informed, the receptionist was having a bath. I got impatient and was nearly going to leave when the candid lady came down the stairs and attended to me. She showed me a big room with a washbasin for a knockoff price.

The place is full of character, surrounded by a shady park that partly hides the old building. The window panes downstairs are translucent glass with patterns, of the type I used to see in my great-grandmother’s house and already appeared to me as a child irremediably outmoded. The marble staircase indicates some aspiration to luxury.

Without having received proper maintenance, the construction now gives away its age. The fixtures are original, even though the period furniture was never meant to be of high-quality, even in its best days. The shutters are missing a few laths and you wonder how they can swing in their hinges without crashing down into the awning. A crack in the wall of my room reveals possible structural damage.

But, damn it, I like the place. It’s so atmospheric that I believe myself to be a traveller to this distant country at a time when travel was not in the hands of the masses. Maybe then the purpose was not pleasure, but a business trip to a bustling town being methodically developed. Today as once upon a time, quiet couples are lounging on the chairs scattered across the terrace and sipping ice-cold beer.

In the night I sneaked out to explore the garden, overgrown with tropical trees and plants that even the bright moonlight couldn’t pierce through. In the dim undergrowth I found an empty swimming pool with a diving board below the terrace. I imagined the society that must have gathered to have fun in this very place, decades ago.

Gonder rose to the role of regional capital in the Italian period (1936-1941), and in the space of few years it acquired a new city centre functional to that purpose. The different buildings that shaped the new town are still here, and above all the public edifices constituting the backbone of the local administration. The post office stands at the end of the avenue, painted in its original cream yellow colour with aqua contours. The top of the hill is occupied by the villas of the former masters and some run-down edifices of three storeys. More than neglected, they’ve been let slide in a state of abandonment, but are still lived in.

It all still stands as the monument to an ambitious but short-lived dream that soon waned because the war events decided otherwise, but that would have collapsed anyway with the end of the colonial era. What there is to see today is a remarkable testimony to the architecture of the 1930’s, possibly a single-minded style, but aesthetically ambitious as well as functional.

The unmistakable geometrical shapes of superposed bodies and round edges give me a sense of nostalgia for something I’ve never lived through. I figured out the enterprise of building in the middle of Africa where nothing existed, not even skilled labour or building materials.

After my enthusing afternoon exploration I ended the day sipping a delicious fruit shake while I watched large birds of prey performing incredible gimmicks in the air. One seemed to be playing with something that it dropped from its beak in order to nose-dive and seize it again, until the play went too far and the object plummeted to the ground from a considerable height. A loudspeaker was playing a repetitive music that provided an inebriating soundtrack to this engrossing African scene.